As expected, even predicted by some, my blogging has consistently decreased over the course of my trip :-S   As my time in Utrecht and the Netherlands nears the end – only 7 weeks till I head back to Canada! – I will try to post more frequently.  I have lots of visitors and travel planned over the next month, so there should be some good stories and even better pictures.

Since I last posted, I’ve have one last weekend with my sister in Amsterdam, a weekend in Manchester with my Grandad and a weekend exploring Utrecht and Amsterdam.

I’ve also learned a couple of lessons about Dutch life….

#1 When doubling on a bike (the second person rides side saddle on the rear rack) the heavier person should ALWAYS do the pedaling.  I have a bruise to prove that the lighter person trying to pedal is a sure-fire way to introduce yourself to the pavement.

#2 The Dutch spa is not your average Canadian spa.  Think steam rooms, saunas, jacuzzi, hot tub (no, they’re not the same thing!) swimming pools, waterfalls and cold “plunge” pools – all in a quiet, peaceful oasis.  The only catch… it’s nude.  Yup, fully co-ed, nude and a completely normal activity for Dutch adults.  I can see my mother blushing right now 😉  But I assure you, mum, it’s just how they do things here, even at the local pool the change rooms are co-ed.  The culture around body image and nudity is totally different than North America, and arguably much healthier.

My weekend with Grandad was wonderful, as usual.  He took me on a tour of Denton, showed me where he and my Nan grew up (just two doors away from each other!) and where my Dad grew up just down the road.  I was able to take pictures of all the houses as well as some of the schools that Grandad and Dad went to.  Now I just need to do the same the next time I’m in Scotland for my mum’s family!

This past weekend I was a bit under the weather, but made it to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam with Virissa, a Canadian doing her PhD here.  The museum was built in the 1920s as a way to show the Dutch people all of the their colonial territories – quite an interesting history.  We explored the museum from top to bottom, and then searched out The Taco Shop – I was craving a little spice, some salsa, a little guacamole, mmmm.   It was well worth the walk, though I’m not sure Virissa agrees 😉

Today it was back to work!  It’s really crunch time.  I need to get the project to a point where I can head back to Canada and be able to finish it off without a lot of external input.  This week and next will be busy, then I’m off for a week of travel (Paris & Rimini, Italy!) followed by 2-3 weeks of intense work before Mark arrives for vacation!

I must admit, it’s a bit odd to watch the Olympics in your hometown while you’re halfway around the world!  Even my parents are partaking in the shenanigans.  I’m sure they weren’t part of the specific event that caused the police to shut the liquor stores early on Saturday night, but they were there nonetheless.

Work wise, things are really picking up.  I’m in full data analysis mode and am making progress, which is always a good thing.  Now if I can just get everything I want to get done, done before I leave!

My sister left the Olympic fever in her dust and came for a visit last weekend.  In between sampling the local beer, eating cheese fondue and sleeping (Sam’s favorite past time) we managed to catch quite a few local sights!  I finally made it up to the top of the Dom Tower; I’d been staring up at it for 6 weeks (that’s 6 Sundays of church bell wake ups) and still hadn’t climbed to the top.  We also stumbled upon the Water Museum, which had a really neat history of the fresh (though not always clean) water supply in the Netherlands.  And, we had a lovely Greek lunch complete with the house cat on our laps!

Sam and I decided to take out bikes into Amsterdam so that we could cover more ground and experience the city in true Dutch style.  Apparently we didn’t check the weather forecast: it was a snowing when we got off the train.  It is really quite difficult to find your way with snow flying in your eyes, particularly when you’re not really that sure where you’re going in the first place.  After a bit of biking we took the uber-touristy boat cruise – it was a welcome relief to be on a covered and heated boat for at least a portion of the day.

In addition to the usual Amsterdam spots we stumbled on an art exhibit called Niet Normal (www.nietnormaal.nl).  It was indeed anything but normal and very very cool.  The whole premise of the exhibit was “what is normal?” and “who gets to decide what normal is?”  It was a collection of paintings, sculptures, short films and interactive displays challenging what society thinks is normal.  Really an interesting and eye opening exhibit.  I’ve tried to find some of the short films on you tube without success 😦

Sam has since moved on to Manchester, UK and Bergen, Norway but I will see her for one more night next Saturday.  We’re planning on spending the day at a traditional Dutch spa…. I will be sure to report back on that experience.

This is getting long!  Last thing: today I went to an Ajax FC game in Amsterdam.  One of the students has season tickets that he couldn’t use this week so he donated them to me and one of the other Canadians, along with 2 hats that we were instructed to wear, “or else”.  The stadium was massive, and the atmosphere was very much like a British football match.  Think 65,000 fans singing, in unison, the chorus to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds: “Don’t worry, about a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be alright”.  Awesome, and particularly suitable for the Amsterdam team.  We were seated next to the hooligan section so we were right in the midst of all the action!  Fortunately the good guys won, so the train ride home was peaceful, even if we were packed in like sardines.

Sadly I won’t be able to catch the Canada-USA hockey game tonight, but I’ll be cheering in my sleep.  Go Canada Go.

Well, it was a busy week here in Utrecht.  The weather is quite good, generally above zero, but sometimes with a lot of rain.  Makes me feel like I’m home in Vancouver!

I finally made it out the International Neighbourhood Group (ING) this week and met a whole gang of foreign students, post docs and faculty.  I imagine it’s a lot like the “Newcomers Group” that my parents joined when they moved to Vancouver (way back when).  It was a lot of fun to commiserate about gaffs with the Dutch language and to hear about how things are at home, when home is Canada, Italy, England, Iceland, Finland or Spain.  I still find it a bit embarrassing that all these folks are able to chat away in English, most have functional Dutch and are also fluent in at least their native language.  Meanwhile, the Canadians can only speak English fluently.

Friday night was a night out with the PhD students.  We headed to a bar in central Utrecht that was once a church. Fortunately they have not changed the architecture significantly, leaving quite a breathtaking spot for a beer after work.  I tried to take a picture but it was packed and hard to capture (and I was trying not to look too touristy!) so I ended up stealing one from the internet.

The weekend held some tourist adventures, finally!  I went to the Centraal Museum as well as the adjacent Nicolaaskerk church.  Apparently, Utrecht is one of one a only a handful (?) of cities that actually had a complete cross of churches laid out within the city.  The Dom Church (up the street from my house) was the centre; the Nicolaaskerk was at the Southern tip of the cross.  Two of the three other churches are still standing, and a portion of the last can apparently be found, so I’ll have to make sure I see them before I leave – these churches date from the 11th century!

At the Centraal Museum there was amazing local history in the form of art and artifact.  There was a map of Utrecht from the 15th century, and the street and house I’m staying at are visible on the map – unbelievable.  In fact, the majority of the downtown area is exactly the same as it was then!  There was also a simple, yet beautiful, chapel in the museum (which makes me wonder what the original structure was…).  The ceiling and beams were all old wood, a little crooked but still holding up.  Quite the sight.

Sadly (for you) I have no funny stories to report this week!  I think I’ve mostly figured out where things are and how to effectively (not necessarily efficiently!) communicate, even at the market where there are some non-english speakers. That said, I am working on learning Dutch phrases and vocabulary… very slowly.  At this rate I’ll know how to introduce myself in Dutch just in time to head back to Toronto 😉

Well, it seems that once weekly postings are going to be the norm now that I’ve settled into my temporary life.  Things are taking shape on the work front as well as the social front.  I spent this past weekend in Manchester, visiting my 85 year old Grandad – something you can’t do when you live halfway around the world!  If there is one thing that is certainly not helping to minimize green house gas emissions, it is the price of short haul flights in Europe; it is just too hard to resist!

I, rather ambitiously, took a 6am flight back to Amsterdam this morning.  Now, I always joke about how the British like their booze, but it reached a new level this morning.  I was waiting in the lounge with my coffee and sandwich at 5:30am and the bar was open!  Not only was it open, several folks were settling into to a morning pint, or vodka, as the case may be.  I like a swig as much as the next person, but at 5:30am on a Monday morning?  Too much.  I tried to take a covert picture which I’ve posted below, but you can see that my private eye skills are lacking 😉

Also this morning I learned that bike riders are lovely target practice for youngsters on their way to school.  I was racing across town from the train station to the office in a blustery snow storm, the path is slippery and I can see them forming their snow balls as I approach.  What do you do?  I kept going and hoped their aim is poor (it doesn’t snow here that often!)  I don’t have any pics, but I was able to duck and avoid a direct hit, much to their dismay!

Well, I’ve made it through another week.  My untrained eye thought there was some nice light on my way home on Friday, so I’ve posted a couple more shots of the Dom Tower and the canals.

I learned my lesson from last week and didn’t eat breakfast before heading to the market on Saturday.  This meant that I was able to enjoy all of the culinary deliciousness, notably the kibbeling (deep fried cod pieces).  Now, I have a fondess for deep fried fish so I thought it was delicious, although admittedly not traditional breakfast fare 😉

Saturday night was my first night “out” in Amsterdam.  Oh boy.  We went to a few spots (one next door the Anne Frank House) and wandered around in the snow.  As would happen, we missed our train, ended up waiting an hour for the next one, and finally made it home in the wee hours of the morning.  There is one picture from the bar that I couldn’t help but take:  one of the bars had a noise meter near the dance floor so that you could see the decibel level of the music at all times.  The occupational hygienist in me was very amused!  I’ve never seen this in Canada – has anyone?

An a result of the late night I’ve spent most of today recovering – my mum will not be happy about this 😉  But it’s back to work tomorrow!

So it’s my second week in Utrecht and life is settling into a normal, and rather familiar, pattern.  I joined a women’s ultimate team for practice on Monday night, and they welcomed me with open arms.  (Primavera Olandese for any international ulti folks reading)   I’m going to practice with them for the remainder of my time here, which is great.  The fields are a bit outside of town but they are turf, with lights, and right beside one of the main canals – quite picturesque.  It was a lovely foggy evening on Monday but I forgot my camera!  Next week, if the weather cooperates, I’ll be sure to snap a pic or two.

On Tuesday I had Ethiopian dinner with the Canadians from work (there are a few Canadian women working in the department).  The food was delicious, with honey wine to wash it down, and all the conversation was in English – way less stressful!  However, this was the first night I left the house without my trusty map…. Now, I don’t consult the map that often, but Murphy’s Law says if you leave the map at home you will get lost.  And I did.  The only up side was that I ended up in Utrecht’s little red light district.  The main red light district is farther out of town on the canal, and is the second largest such district in the Netherlands (behind Amsterdam).  Apparently all the women work on canal boats…. definitely a spot I need to check out!

On Wednesday it was time for some home cooked food (more stamppot, so easy and delicious!) and another yoga class in Dutch.  It turns out that the yoga is a very good language lesson, because it’s really the only time people speak slowly and use simple words – you have to be grateful for the small things 😉

Somehow between all of this  managed to  also get quite a bit of work done, which is good because that’s why I came in the first place!

Sunday = laundry & relaxation day, at least in my books.  I went to the local yoga studio this morning for a trial class. I  wasn’t sure whether yoga in Dutch would be productive, but the only studio that teaches in English is across town and more expensive.  This studio is 5 doors down the road, which is too convenient to not at least try!  Turns out, as all of my experiences have confirmed, the locals are warm and welcoming.  They were happy to have me, and I did exactly what I would have done in an English class: I followed the person beside me.

Next up was laundry, the task I wasn’t intimidated by.  I arrived, read the instructions (in English), put in my clothes and soap, paid my money and started the machine.  At this point I saw there were several signs above the machines that I hadn’t read as they were all in Dutch.  I found the one with an English translation (my machine is already running at this point): “The machine adds soap automatically, you cannot add soap manually.  However you may add fabric softener in the top of the machine.”

Great.  I’d put my soap where the fabric softener goes and I didn’t even need to add soap!  I wasn’t sure if this meant my clothes would be twice as clean, or still frothy with soap when they came out.  So, I watched and waited for the explosion of soap bubbles, but none came, hmm.  The clothes felt clean and not soapy when the cycle finished, so I just threw them in the dryer and brought them home.

Strange I thought, why didn’t the extra soap affect my laundry?  I was puzzled, so I checked the writing on the bottle of  laundry “soap”.   I used the handy on-line translator to determine that, in fact, I had bought fabric softener instead of soap!   So everything had worked out despite two blatant errors on my part – a small blessing, but one I’m grateful for.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the second mistake always cancelled out the first 😉

During the week almost all of the stores in Utrecht town centre close at 5pm, which means that if you want to accomplish anything you have to skip out of work early – not ideal most days!  The solution seems to be that everyone turns out on Saturday for the market in the pedestrian-only shopping district.

The market was buzzing!  It was full of fresh produce, meat, poultry, fish, flowers as well as clothes, shoes and just about anything else your heart could desire.  I was in search of a cheese stand rumoured to offer 3 blocks of cheese for 5 euro – must be too good to be true.   In fact, the stand existed and the selection was staggering.  I left with Port Salut, Royal Blue, a Swiss variant, as well as a strong urge to exercise in order to balance my impending cheese consumption.

On the way home I wandered into St Martin’s Cathedral, also called the Dom church because it used to be attached to the tower.  The cathedral was the centre piece of Utrecht’s cross of churches; there has been a chapel on the site since the 7th century!  Turns out there was live piano and violin music, so I hid from my first rainy day in Utrecht listening to Bach and Mozart in the local cathedral – quite breathtaking and a lovely way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon 🙂

,

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to bike in Toronto again.

Biking in Utrecht, and likely the rest of the Netherlands, is heavenly if you’re used to the mean streets of a Canadian city.  There are separate lanes for bikes (including very intricate left turn pathways), separate lights for bikes and bikes generally have the right of way (yes, you read that correctly).  In a nutshell, it’s fabulous.  You don’t even have to roll up your pant leg because the chains are covered!

The hierarchy of transportation looks something like this: 1. Bikes, 2. Pedestrians, 3. Cars.  In rush hour, on both days, I’ve seen very few cars, several buses and a swarm of bikes.  Quite the reversal from Toronto.

I also cooked my first Dutch dish for dinner tonight: Boerenkool stamppot, kale hash if you’re Canadian (it clearly sounds better in Dutch).  It’s base is one of my favourite foods: mash potatoes.  You take your mash and add whatever you would like (generally a green vegetable based on the discussion at work today) as well as spices, onion, garlic etc.  I took it upon myself to add cheese (oh yeah) and it was delicious, as well as wholesome, cheap and healthy (I only added a little cheese).  Now, if I can just convince Canadians that gourmet cooking is a green vegetable-based hash, I’ll be a domestic goddess 😉

Well, as I suspected my tire was flat as a pancake again when I got up this morning!  So, it was off to the bus stop again.  My “new” bike was really not cooperating with my idea of Dutch living.

Day 2 of work was very good.  <Nerd alert> I met at length with a Dutch Occupational Hygienist who is leading a case-control study to identify risk factors for allergic contact dermatitis in German epoxy exposed workers.  One of the things they’re interested in is irritant contact dermatitis and the impaired barrier function this may confer.  He translated the whole questionnaire for me as we discussed the hypotheses, and compared the norms in Canada, the Netherlands and Germany.  I’ll probably be able to help a little with the pilot study data analysis before I leave, which will be interesting.  Spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what the rest (and bulk) of my work here will look like! </Nerd Alert>

After work I went back to the bike store (again) and the very helpful man replaced my tube and tire for FREE!  My bike is finally fully functional; I will be joining the two-wheeled rush hour for the first time tomorrow.  Wish me luck!

Other successes today included finding an ultimate team to work out with (yay), getting a cheap ticket to the UK to visit my Dad’s side of the family (double yay) and making dinner plans for Friday night (so what, they felt obligated to invite me because I’m in the office now, I don’t care).

Thanks for keeping tabs on my trip thus far, I hope everyone is having a lovely start to 2010 🙂

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